At UW-Madison, class rank is the main factor deciding whether an incoming freshman will be allowed the opportunity to hike up Bascom Hill every day. It hasn’t always been this way. Until the middle of the 1990s, the focus was on test scores and grade point averages. However, the UW System Board of Regents decided class rank was a more effective way of measuring the future academic success of students potentially entering college.
It’s also cost effective. An admissions official can quickly assess the ability of an applicant by examining class rank, thus lessening the tedious process of individually going through every application for factors that might make a successful college student. Like every system, some individuals are lost in the process. Hopefully the appeals process will catch any glaring errors, but for the most part, accuracy is replaced with efficiency.
The University of Georgia, like most public universities, operates under a similar system, the Total Student Index, which assigns points to applicants based on test scores, grade point, class rank and other factors, including race. Minority applicants receive a considerable boost in points to ensure a diverse campus. This system was recently ruled unconstitutional by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Appeals Court ruled that this practice violated the intent of the 1978 Supreme Court ruling in University of California Regents v. Bakke, which provided the legal framework necessary to justify using a varying admission standard for nonwhite applicants. The Appeals Court cited the concurring opinions of the other justices in the case as evidence that the “compelling interest” cited by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. to allow discrimination in order to improve campus diversity does not protect the University of Georgia’s use of the TSI to boost chances of admission for nonwhite applicants.
And so the struggle to define diversity and understand the place of affirmative action in U.S. society continues. The court’s decision has wide implications for many college campuses. It remains to be seen whether UW-Madison’s system of allowing “nontraditional admissions”—bureaucratic jargon for applicants whose admission could create a more diverse campus—continues to be legal. According to the Board of Regents Resolution 3688, admissions standards should “achieve established enrollment capacities consistent with highly valued educational principles, including the high-priority objective of providing educational opportunities for minority/disadvantaged students.” It is hard to tell at this point whether the Appeals Court’s reinterpretation of the Supreme Court will invalidate this resolution.
However, the most important result of the Appeals Court ruling is how the judges chose to define diversity. Diversity has been used as a symbolic word for creating an environment with more ethnic minorities. Yet diversity’s meaning has expanded far beyond the narrow vision of ethnic diversity to include the ideological, experiential and socioeconomic. In a sense, the Appeals Court is re-establishing the meaning of diversity as all-encompassing.
Under this new paradigm, the “rigid, mechanical approach,” which Judge Stanley Marcus of the Appeals Court denounced, must be replaced with a more individual approach that admits applicants based on all forms of diversity, not just ethnic. In a way, the Court’s decision is commonsensical. No narrowly defined system of admission can be truly diverse because its very existence excludes those outside the system. If some are excluded because they don’t fit the criteria of the system, the goal of diversity has already been compromised. An individual analysis is the only way to judge the merits of an individual applicant’s quotient of diversity, if such a measure exists.
However true this may be, race-based admissions were not created to make university campuses utopias of diversity. They were created to ensure that certain individuals in society who have suffered from centuries of discrimination have the opportunity to attend a university when they otherwise might not have been able to do so. Education is one of the key factors in deciding the future income level of a person in society. Allowing minority students into college when they might not have otherwise qualified is another way of ensuring that certain ethnic segments of American society are not trapped in poverty simply because they have historically occupied that position.
If colleges are denied the ability to include ethnicity as a factor in admissions, this vital social process will grind to a halt. No public university has the resources to accurately judge the individual worth of each candidate, and if UW-Madison or any other institution is asked to do so, the result will be the abandonment of any attempt to provide educational opportunities to minority or disadvantaged students.